Juventus prevented the first El Clásico in a Champions League final with its 3-2 aggregate win over Real Madrid in their semifinal. It might have been a win for the underdog, but Maxi Allegri’s side hasn’t really gotten the credit it deserves.
Quietly one of Europe’s best teams over the last couple seasons, Juventus, the reigning four-time Serie A champion, imposed its style on Real and didn’t hide from the challenge. The teams finished about even in possession, with Madrid narrowly edging the percentage in both games.
Rather than parking the bus, Juve controlled long stretches of both games from the start. Álvaro Morata’s first goal of the series, just nine minutes in, came off a spell of ball circulation that spanned the entire field and involved nine players.
Over two legs, Madrid couldn’t get its superior individual talent to work for the team cause, as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale played far below their standard. Karim Benzema’s return for the second leg offered better balance and flow in attack, but Bale missed multiple opportunities and Ronaldo failed to influence the game through the run of play.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team played its usual 4-4-2/4-3-3 hybrid system but couldn’t get into a good rhythm until about a quarter-hour into the return leg after sputtering in Turin. When Real looked dangerous, it showed its usual prowess in all types of attacks—possession, counterattacks and set pieces—but could only get one goal to fall at home, on a soft penalty.
On the other end, Juventus began both games in a 4-1-3-2 with Andrea Pirlo at the base and Arturo Vidal at the point of four central midfielders.
Allegri’s team alternated smoothly between purposeful ball circulation and composed pressure absorption.
In attack, Juve’s own top three of Vidal, Morata and Carlos Tévez showed better chemistry and complemented each other in a more productive way than Madrid’s discontented attacking stars.
Tévez’s typical running pattern involved checking off the front line to find the ball, then facing forward after laying it off and running into gaps between Madrid’s defensive and midfield lines to receive return passes in pockets without pressure. In the meantime, Morata stretched the defense and Vidal balanced their movements with runs from deeper.
Vidal did the most defensive work among the three, dropping next to Pirlo in a flat 4-4-2 as Juve retreated into its lowest defensive block. His defensive pressure also disrupted Madrid’s build-up—even greater than Benzema’s absence in the first leg was Luka Modrić’s in both matches, as it left Toni Kroos alone to organize and distribute in central midfield.
Sergio Ramos played alongside Kroos in the first leg, but he was far more effective back in central defense in the second match. Isco filled Modrić’s role at the Santiago Bernabéu, but he couldn’t effect the same quality of possession as the Croatian.
Meanwhile, Kroos struggled to account for Tévez’s movement in what could be called a “nine-and-a-half” role, linking midfield and attack somewhere between the classic striker and playmaker positions. Morata, an effective finisher with moments of valuable hold-up play as well, ensured Juve didn’t miss out on that higher presence at the same time.
Pirlo again provided the impetus for Juve in both attacking and defensive phases, distributing to teammates and delaying opponents as appropriate. The deep-lying playmaker is a textbook example of what the Italians call a regista, which literally translates to “director,” as in cinema.
Juventus showed no fear in playing out of the back and circulating possession all over the field.
Madrid scored during Juve’s brief lapses midway through the first half in each leg, but the Italians resumed control of the match after conceding both goals.
Add in a healthy, productive Paul Pogba—he wasn’t quite up to par in the second leg but still finished with the vital assist on a knockdown header in the penalty area and showed an improved maturity late in the game—and Juventus has once of the most balanced teams on the continent.
Against Madrid, Allegri set his team up to secure a win at home, then lock down the back end to take the lead into the second leg. In Spain, his team pressed until it scored just once more, getting the vital away goal even after playing from behind, then shut it down again.
Beyond a system of narrow midfielders, Juve can also play with three central defenders and stifle attacks with compact lines in a 3-5-2 or 5-3-2. Allegri inserted Andrea Barzagli into the back line, and the classic Italian defensive discipline took over, aided by clock-bleeding tactics to destroy Madrid’s attacking tempo and frustrate the Galácticos.
Juve did just enough on the road to make its home win stand up, seeing out the remainder of time well after scoring. Morata scored twice against the club that promoted him from academy to first team, a €20 million transfer worth a fraction of the millions that it took to buy those who replaced him.
Against Barcelona in the final, Juventus will again be the heavy underdog.
It has a better chance to stifle the Barça attack than Bayern Munich’s injury-depleted squad, and Juve is generally a superior defensive team to Bayern, but the La Liga leader should be an even stiffer challenge than Real.
The understanding among Barcelona’s front three of Neymar, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi easily eclipses Real’s current state of discontent in attack. Juve has conceded more than one goal in just six matches all season, but its next task is stopping a team that put five past Bayern and has scored 28 goals in 12 Champions League matches.
Playing just 90 minutes should help, as it’s much easier for teams to punch above their weight for one match rather than two. Another disciplined display of pragmatic balance between attack and defense could provide a second successive upset.